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Lifting the curtain

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
July 4, 2017

PM Narendra Modi's visit to Israel marks the first time an Indian premier sets foot on Israeli soil. The trip shows both countries' deepening bond amid increasing convergence in their security and economic interests.

Eröffnung von Salma Wasserkraftwerk Afghanistan Besuch Narendra Modi
Image: Getty Images/A.Karimi

Modi becomes first Indian PM to visit Israel

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's three-day visit to Israel, starting from Tuesday, is described as a historic occasion, which is likely to herald a new era of ever closer bilateral relationship encompassing an array of areas ranging from defense and security to agriculture and irrigation technology.

As the first Indian PM to travel to Israel, Modi wrote in a Facebook post, "I am greatly looking forward to this unprecedented visit that will bring our two countries and people closer.

"I will have in-depth talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu on the full spectrum of our partnership and strengthening it in diverse fields for mutual benefit. We will also have the chance to discuss major common challenges like terrorism."

Modi's Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called the visit a "further expression of the state of Israel's military, economic and diplomatic strength.

"This is a very significant step in strengthening relations between the two countries," Netanyahu said. "India is a huge country with over 1.25 billion people and is one of the world's largest, growing economies. Ties between Israel and India are on a constant upswing."

Modi's Bear-hug diplomacy

Defense ties

This year, the two countries are marking the 25th anniversary of full diplomatic relations. Ties between the two sides have expanded and deepened considerably over the past decade, particularly in defense.

India is the world's biggest importer of defense equipment, and Israel has become one of its major suppliers. India is reportedly close to signing deals to purchase anti-tank missiles and a naval air defense weapon system from Israel.

India has recently signed three defense pacts worth $3 billion with Israel. The three deals include the acquisition of 164 "Litening-4" targeting pods to be used by the Indian Air Force and an undisclosed number of Spice 250 precision guided bombs with a standoff range of 100 kilometers (62 miles).

Eli Alfassi, executive vice president of marketing at state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the country's biggest defence firm, was quoted by Reuters as saying that it was supplying India with drones, radar, communication systems and cybersecurity.

The centerpiece of the collaboration is the Barack 8 air defense system, built jointly by the two countries in a boost for Modi's campaign to develop a domestic defense industry.

In the three fiscal years to March 2016, Israel was the third-biggest weapons supplier to India, having sold armaments worth a total of 76 billion rupees ($1 billion), according to an Indian parliament report.

Only the US and Russia have made more defense deals with India during the period.

Boosting the defense cooperation further, in addition to giving momentum to trade and upgrading cooperation in water technologies will be on top of the agenda during Modi's trip to Tel Aviv.

Balancing conflicting interests

As Israel's ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, said in a recent interview, "When presidents and prime ministers visit and sign agreements and showcase the strength of each country, this makes the relationship tangible and goes beyond declarations."

India's relations with Israel, more so their defense cooperation, are now in the public domain underscoring how security and military concerns weigh heavily in their ties.

"It is now a given that both countries will work more on counterterrorism exchanging perceptions of threats emanating from terrorism and their determination to fight the menace," said counterterrorism expert Ajay Sahni.

But as ties burgeon, questions are being asked on how India will continue to balance its ties to Israel with its engagements in the Gulf region.

And how will India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, known for its high-decibel brand of Hindu nationalism, reconcile its push for closer Israeli ties with New Delhi's traditionally pro-Palestinian stance?

"Both the Congress (India's biggest opposition party) and the BJP have promoted and upgraded relations with Israel. It does not detract or change our position with respect to the Palestinian cause," Lalit Mansingh, a former foreign secretary, told DW.

In the Middle East region, Modi has already visited key Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Qatar as well as Shia-majority Iran.

But Modi's trip to Israel will not see him visiting Palestine, a move to stress the "de-hyphenation" of India's relations with the two states.

"Modi's Middle East policy and interests in the Gulf region are well articulated. We have eight million Indian workers there whose remittances are very important. The region is a strategic periphery and we do not want to meddle with the politics there," added Mansingh.

A path-breaker trip?

Other foreign policy experts argue that good bilateral relations with Israel are likely to generate some collateral benefits for India in the form of a closer partnership with the US, as the Jewish lobby is widely seen as an influential force in American politics.

"Seeing the likely visit of Modi through a narrow BJP prism misses the larger picture. Since coming to power, the BJP-led NDA government has been engaging with all the countries of the wider Middle East, Arab and non-Arab alike," PR Kumaraswamy, a professor of international relations at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University and expert on Israel, told DW.

Moreover, a number of key countries in the Middle East are preoccupied with more serious geostragetic challenges and the issue of Palestinian statehood is way down on their list of priorities.

"Modi's visit will not be able to ignore these realities when dealing with the Middle East," emphasizes Kumaraswamy.

Since Modi came to power in May 2014, his government has more openly embraced India's ties with Israel, in contrast to the approach favored by Modi's predecessors who preferred to keep relations low-key. 

Modi last met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September 2014 on the margins of the UN General Assembly session.

Since then there have been other high-profile visits. Israel's President Reuven Rivlin arrived on his first state visit to India last November which was reciprocated by President Pranab Mukherjee's trip.

Ties are widely expected to scale new heights.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11